Self Preservation: Life in the Sonderkommando
In 1944 Shlomo Venezia became a prisoner of Auschwitz. One of the most notorious death camps in Germany. During this time he was in a special area of the camp called Sonderkommando. The Sonderkommando was responsible for the gas chambers. Their job was to help usher people into the chamber, after they had gotten undressed, and then drag their bodies out. They were kept away from the other prisoners, and were only allowed to interact with other Sonderkommando. This was to keep other camp prisoners from knowing the mass genocide that took place in the gas chambers. After the people were gassed, and drug out from the chamber, their bodies were burned in ovens that operated twenty four hours a day. Sonderkommando worked twelve hour shifts removing bodies, and cleaning the gas chamber for the next group. For them it became nothing but a job, a way to survive. The endless death and horrors became common place. During his eight months in the Sonderkommando Shlomo saw hundreds of thousands of Jews come and die. Life, in the death camps, was a matter of survival skills, and self-preservation. One wrong move could mean death. Prisoners had to be critically aware of their surroundings at all times. Selfishness was needed at every moment to survive. It was the kind of environment that could only breed hate, and selfish cruel acts. Yet even in this turmoil filled, rotten place, some kindness could be found. They call it altruism, a selfless act. Acts of kindness and humanity could even be found here.
Shlomo Lived a different life in the camp, not only in the work he did, but the treatment he received. Many people in the camps got little food, no new clothes, and lived in huts. It was crowded, dirty, and filled with insects and vermin. The people were worked for eleven hours and then they were marched for hours on end. It was a horrible life filled with torture. The Jews were terrified, threatened and killed often. The SS men were brutal and very violent, they often created excuses to execute prisoners. The SS actually used this as a method of suppression. They knew what terror they could inflict, and how they could control the Jews using it. “The Germans were capable of every perversion to humiliate us.” (Inside the Gas Chambers 102)
For Shlomo though, there was more food, and they slept in a room above the ovens, so it was warmer for them in the colder times. The clothes that prisoners left behind could be traded for their own, when they had too many holes. It was not an easy life, but it was easier than the other prisoners. The SS men were not constantly hovering in the Sonderkommando. They only came in with a group that was to be put to death. After the jews were gassed they left and the men kept working, but the SS did not interact much with the Sonderkommando. Often times it was just the men working alone. Their kappo (supervisor) was the only one directing them.
For most of the people in the death camps there was constant terror, and fear. It would have made a perfect environment for psychological disorders such as PTSD. During their time in the camp people were likely suffering from it. Even Shlomo with his provided “comforts” could have been effected by it. “Several disasters like explosions, may occur in the workplace. These disasters may result in physical and mental co-morbidity, depression, PTSD and panic disorders.”(PTSD 2) Though there were not explosions during most of the time in the death camp, there were shootings, beatings, and other horrific events. There were enough terrible events and horrors to push any mind beyond the limits of what it can take. “It was a really sad moment, perhaps one of the saddest. To see the state we had been reduced to…But I didn’t cry. Even when I found out about my mother….The tap of my tears was blocked and I no longer cried, in spite of the sadness and pain.” (Inside the Gas Chambers 45) Shlomo had surely been locked into fear and terror. There was no escape on any side, and he was sure of his death. So much so that his world was numb. The trauma was too much for a young man only twenty years old. It was in this state that he went through his time in the Sonderkommando. His only thinking was a constant drive to survive.
Survival meant taking care of yourself first, family second, and maybe others if there was a way. It was a selfish life in the camps. Everyone looked out for themselves. Food was scarce and valuable, for many people it meant life or death. The Jews walked around starving all day, every day. Even trivial items like a spoon, and bowl became highly prized commodities. All the basic things we can take for granted were worth fighting for. Even a small portion of bread was enough to start a fight. “Indeed, it becomes obvious from these books that survival depended to some extent on ones place in the higherarchy and the population group to which one belonged.” (How did They Survive? Mechanisms of Defense in Nazi Concentration Camps. 2) Shlomo saw that his brother had been put to work in another crematorium, and he was sure there would be a selection after his three months in the Sonderkommando, and so he wanted to be there with his only family while he could. “I wasn’t expecting to live past the those three months, so, when I saw the end was approaching, I went to see the kappo of my crematorium, Lemke.”(Inside the Gas Chambers 82) Shlomo knew that he wanted to spend the last moments of his life with his brother. This was both selfish and altruistic of him. Shlomo had the desire to be comforted, and connected with people he knew. His emotional attachemnet to his brother compelled him to act. His behavior shows how altruism works within a family unit, where there is an intricate bond.
This was not his only interaction with family. At one point Shlomo saw an uncle come to the gas chamber. He had been selected due to his inability to work. “ I rushed back over so as to not run the risk that he’d not already have been[gassed before I could get back with the food]…I gave him everything.” (Inside the Gas Chambers 107) Just for taking extra time, or being seen comforting a man, to be gassed, or caught with extra food could have cost him his life, but Shlomo acted with altruism. Shlomo risked himself several times, not just for family, but for strangers. Part of his strength was adapting. His mind might have been suffering and suppressing all the horrors he saw, but part of him still longed to be a good person, and to give kindness where it was possible. “I present both kin altruism and human altruism between non-kin as depending on non-stochastic assortative grouping. However, only in human altruism does the altruist exert a significant control over positive assortment such that individual selection is there involved. (Multi Level Selection and Human Altruism 3) The evidence suggests that we pick and choose who to be altruistic with. Sometimes it is a random person we identify with, but more often it is a close relative. Someone we share a social bond with. Shlomo bringing his uncle food during his last moments showed a bond to family, but his collaboration in other acts of altruism show he had bonded to others in the camps by identifying with their suffering.
It is hard to imagine altruism having any value in this situation, where everyone shared the same destiny. There is always a price to be paid for altruism, especially when it is not reciprocated. In that respect it is a dangerous expense of resources, especially when there are limited. “Elsewhere, this wasn’t possible. Showing solidarity was a luxury that few could afford; a mouthful of food given to someone else was a mouthful less for you.” (Inside the Gas Chambers 101) Meaning that in the Sonderkommando they had enough to share. They were not lacking and so could afford be a little altruistic. Shlomo recalls them leaving their soup pot full for railway workers, so that they had more. In the Sonderkommando they sold the valuables collected from people selected to die, and then they bought food with it. They behaved selfishly in taking out gold teeth and keeping valuables, but in return it helped them show kindness for their fellow prisoners. No one could expect them to share. Every bit they gave away could cost them strength to work, and make them more likely for selection. Physical strength and mental went hand in hand. Being hungry caused many people to eat rotten food, and get sick, and then die from it.
The death camp dehumanized the Jews at every turn. “The Nazi camps with their frequent ‘selections’ gave prisoners some limited options: don’t question the system, conserve energy, eat whatever you can find, look as fit as you can, think in the present and shot term, but never the past, and above all, have optimism and work for your own survival at all times.” (Surviving a Disaster. Pg1) Living in the camp meant following the rules, and staying out of trouble. Most importantly, was doing exactly what you were told. It meant mentally avoiding the horrors going on around them. When someone fell over dead, or was killed, you did not scream out in horror, or react at all. Reactions could get you killed, so survival was dependent upon the suppression of the average human behavior. The workers faced the brunt of the abuse. For the Kappo’s, who were in charge of the bunks, it meant keeping prisoners in line, even if that meant beating them or killing them. Being too soft on them would get the Kappo killed, which meant they were often very brutal. All of this lead to people committing suicide by running outside after lockdown. Attempts to escape were punished by death, and anyone out after lights out was shot on sight. Even after the Jews left Auschwitz, part of them remained ingrained in their conscious, all of the horrible things they saw. The small acts of humanity they were afforded stayed with them as well.“You know emotional blunting has been described as a practically universal defense mechanism among concentration camp inmates. One deep and unchanging grief is the concern about one’s nearest who has either been arrested at the same time as oneself, or whom one worries about with the unknown murderous behavior of the guards. The killing of one’s comrades, the floggings and executions- in brief, all of the unvariable and incredible realities of daily life-had, to a certain degree, to be dealt with as if they did not exist.” (The liberation of The Nazi Concentration Camps. 57)
This camp construct was meant to demean and terrify prisoners, so that they were continuously paralyzed by fear. SS officers knew how to maintain control with force, and fear. They used the mental frailty to suppress any idea of revolt. Many means of torture were used. “Another, equally painful punishment was that known as the “pillar” which consisted in suspending a prisoner by his hands, which were tied behind his back, in such a way that his feet could not touch the ground.” (Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team1) The Jews were constantly abused, from the time that they woke, until they slept. Somehow, though, they maintained the desire to continue living. “The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in at least one of the following ways, intense psychological distress at exposure to events that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event, including anniversaries of the trauma. “(Post traumatic therapy and victims of violence 7) At this level of psychological and physical abuse it is hard to imagine anyone wishing to continue. The survival of the prisoners was likely a mix of an altruistic and social bond, and the desire for themselves to be survivors. “At a certain moment, under that pressure, that anguish, you become selfish and there’s only one thing you can think of: how to save yourself.” (Inside the Gas Chambers 65)
In the face of unmitigated misery the young were often more traumatized by the situation, though they had better survival skills, and overall health. “What emerged from all these studies is that the young were vulnerable to adversity and stressful events, whether experienced directly, e.g. hunger and forcible separations, or indirectly, through victimisation of their parents and siblings.” ( Psychiatric disorders and other health dimensions among Holocaust survivors 6 decades later 5) Many young people were imprisoned at the death camps. Shlomo was only twenty when he entered the camp. Like many others this made him a better candidate for work. The Germans were quick to select the old, and the disabled for death, as well as women and small children. Shlomo was able to adapt due to his age and earlier life experiences. They helped carry him through the experience, even if it forever left a scar in his mind.
Surrender to the cold reality of life in the camp would have only brought people closer to their death. People maintained their sanity by not thinking, or questioning, but by doing. They lived trying to deny that death was around every corner, and it was just waiting for them. The lack of food, and bathing, and personal care, must have been maddening at times. For some survivors it made other suffering in life pale by comparison. “It is still not clear why some people develop PTSD while others do not. There are many known factors that would determine the likelihood a person may develop PTSD. Both the duration and intensity of the trauma are among important risk factors.” (PTSD. Pg2) Some of them went on to be stronger, and overcome other hardships in life, while some were forever debilitated. The argument could be made that it was social connections which empowered them during their time in the camps. Coming from the same religion and culture would have created a tighter social bond.
There was a unity among some of the prisoners. “Groups formed with altruists of this sort are special, because they are not affected by subversion from within. A synergistic process where altruism is selected both at the individual and at the group level can take place”(Multi level Selection of Human Altruism 1) In the Sonderkommando it was often the newest, and weakest members that were selected. The members who worked hard, and got along with the others were not selected. Cooperation meant trading tasks when one member was exhausted, so that another could rest. For them, unity made life easier for the group. Plus sharing meant that they did not have to fight over resources. If they had chosen to be selfish, and argue over resources, they all would have likely suffered. Choosing to be altruistic within the group meant less resources for the individual, but an overall benefit for everyone. “It is a commonplace observation that there are “winners” and “losers” in all forms of social competition. In fact, the idea that social defeat, which typically leads to subordination, may be a major contributory factor in the emergence of depression.”( Modeling Depression: Social Dominance–Submission Gene Expression Patterns in Rat Neocortex 1) Our brain chemistry is built like that of rats, and equally social competition can be good or bad for humans. Competition existed in the death camps where there were less resources. Often people who got on the bad side of the Kappo were selected. This is the reason it was so vital for any unity that could be found. It was likely to prevent more human casualties. There was staunch competition in being first to exit the huts for role call, due to the beatings imposed on those who were last. There were struggles for utensils and any other resources that could be found. Money or gold were a precious commodity. Often times people stole from one another. People even slept with their shoes on out of fear that they would be stolen. Altruism was not the normal behavior in the camps. Everyone wanted to survive, even if it meant costing someone else their life.
“Personally, I think I’d rather have died. But each time, some words of my mother’s used to come to my mind: ‘While there’s life, there’s hope.’ We were too close to death, but we carried on, day by day. I think we needed a special strength to get through it all, a psychological and physical strength.” (Inside the Gas Chambers 88) That strength was powerful. The Jews survived against all the odds, with all the horrors of the death camp. It took a massive amount of human will power. It took looking at even your torturers as nothing but bosses. It meant swallowing down all of your hate, and fear, and despair. It meant getting along no matter the odds, or obsticales. The people in the death camp showed that human nature is not cut and dry, but that there are so many factors to everything. They show how there can be a glimmer of hope in the darkest of nights, and even when humanity loses control, some people do not forget kindness.
“I saw my sister again in Israel in 1957. She had picked up my trail at the hospital, thanks to my brother-in-law, Aaron Mano, whom she had married before going to live in Israel. Of all of our family, only three of us survived. That’s already a miracle, when you think of all the families that were completely wiped out, from which no one is left to preserve any memories.” (Inside the Gas Chambers 152) It is hard to imagine what it would be like to live in a place like Auschwitz, let alone survive it. Shlomo recalls that tears never came for years after leaving the death camp. It was only when he was with his sister that he finally found the strength to cry. Through all the worst of it he was sure that he would never live to see the outside of Auschwitz again. All that he did in there was to keep himself going. His strength showed when he could give some small confort to others. If there could be blessings in hell, then they were that he knew how to be altruistic. One can only speculate at the lives that were lost, how they would have been. They could have been selfish, or just as kind as Shlomo, but we will never know. What we can see is that he was able to reach beyond what we would realistically expect a human to endure, and even in that madness find the heart to salvage his humanity.
The prisoners of Auschwitz barely survived. They clung to sanity in the face of horrors. They struggled and survived on the meager food they were given, and dealt with the harsh, cruel and dehumanizing conditions of the camp. It took tremendous will to achieve this feat. It took a collective will. You can see how people decended into selfish human acts, thinking of only themselves, but in a place where that was likely all you had left it was to be expected. Acts of kindness really had no value, except for the person doing them. There was no possibility of reciprocation, but there was the value of humanity. Coming through the gates of Auschwitz meant leaving your education, skill, and standing in society behind. You became a body that worked, and a number. You were no longer a husband, a son, a mother, or sister. So no one had a reason to care or show kindness. That is what makes altruism a priceless commodity in conditions like this. Because it was not expected, it was not encouraged, and you could pay the ultimate price for it. There is something to be said for people who can find some good in something so terrible, and more for people who can do it. What happened in Auschwitz and the other death camps must never be forgotten as a human tragedy, but we must also speak of the people who remained humans, when it was insufferable to be one. Altruism has its place in humanity, because it is an important part of our conscious, and what makes us human.